The Romance Novel as an Art Form

by | July 16, 2014 |

I don’t have to go out on a limb to say this, because I’m already out on that limb: the romance novel is an art form.

Yes, it’s an art form like any other. It’s a very popular art form, which means in terms of numbers of practitioners, it’s at a polar opposite from, say, avant-garde artists who are, by definition, few.

The size of the romance writing world was stigmatized already 150 years ago by Nathaniel Hawthorne when he referred to the “damned mob of scribbling women” whose books outsold his and were driving him (a more deserving writer, from his POV) out of the marketplace. Today he’s read in all American high schools. So, good on ‘ya, Nat.

Me, I’m waiting for a Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School to understand the romance genre. I know scholars are working on popular fiction in the American academy. I’m just not sure anyone has theorized aesthetic taste on a wide scale and the particular taste for the romance. But that’s not my job.

My job is to create my stories. I’ve long thought of my work in relationship to the French impressionist painter, Paul Cézanne, who created a series of paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. He would paint this mountain, perhaps, at 4:30 pm from this angle. Next time around he might paint it at 8:00 am from another angle. As I look at his series, I have the sense he’s making a slow turn around his mountain, painting it from this angle and in this particular light and then from that angle and in that particular light.

My Mont Sainte-Victoire is the love relationship. Over the years I’ve been slowing moving around my mountain, seeing it from this angle and in this light and from that angle and in that light. I’ve been interested to paint the love relationship in its many colors: there’s love at first sight, the battle of the sexes, friendship warming to love, opposites attract, and the arranged marriage where the couple has to learn to love. The variations are endless.

I’ve also long thought of my work in terms of the Rolling Stones in two ways. First, in “Street Fighting Man,” Mick Jagger asks: “Well, then, what can a poor boy do/ Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band?” My version is: “Well, then, what can a suburban girl do/ Except to write her romance novels?” Okay, my line doesn’t scan, but there it is. Nothing in my experience would prompt me to write a book Oprah, for instance, would be interested in. All of my imagination moves toward the emotionally saturated, dialogue oriented, physically and often erotically rich genre known as romance.

Second, I’ve long admired the Stones for trying out their versions of various rock subgenres: blues, honky-tonk, hard, soft, anthem, ballad. For my part, I’ve loved exploring the range of romance subgenres. In the subcategory of Historicals alone I’ve written Medievals, Regencies, Americana (e.g. Westerns), Renaissance, and Scottish Highlands. Then there’s Paranormal (my time-slip series), along with forays into BDSM and my most recent story, a Motorcycle Club romance entitled Motorcycles in the Mekong (September, 2014). Different subgenres require attention to different melodies and harmonies, and I love tuning my ear to them and then trying them out. As a whole, the romance genre is one whose improvisatory range is extremely rich for me.

As a kid I sneaked enough peeks in Playboy magazines to be aware of the painter Alberto Vargas. He specialized in pin ups. I remember gazing at his images in fascination, not only because I thought they were pretty, but also because I was musing over an inchoate, kid-sized version of the question, “Is this art?” I could see that the painter had a vision for what he was doing.

I couldn’t have formulated the thought at the time, but in retrospect I can see that Vargas was not posing new questions about his subject matter in the way that, say, Cézanne was. I am, however, clear that Vargas was working within an art form. Did he make some kind of contribution to it? I’m not sure, but I do think it’s possible to have something new and interesting to say about his chosen art form.

Am I making a comparison between romance novels and pin up posters? No more than I am making one between Impressionist paintings, rock ‘n’ roll, or even The Scarlet Letter. I am exploring here the idea of an art form and the possibilities of contributing to it. A contribution is a digging around, seeing what there is to be discovered. To me the love relationship is the mother lode of subject matters. It’s gold. It’s also beautiful. In my blog post “Five Myths About Romance Novels” I wrote about Renaissance paintings depicting the Madonna and Child. I note here that those paintings are beautiful, too.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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